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A trial by media: misinterpretations, contradictions and half-truths in the case of Mohamed Nasheed

The international ‘popular’ trial of former President Mohamed Nasheed has fallen into a spiral of oversimplifications and selective narratives that leads to contradictions, writes PPM MP Dr Abdulla Khaleel. “The real motivation behind their call for sanctions is not the liberation of the former President, but a governmental change, which would turn the sanctions illegal and contrary to the principle of sovereignty.”



By Dr Abdulla Khaleel


When top politicians are judged, there is a high underlying risk of sensationalism. Both national and international media are often willing to create a parallel public trial, in which the arguments, unlike in a court of law, do not rely on evidence, but are based on general stereotypes and preconceptions; in which principles such as the Rule of Law and equality are eclipsed by simple narratives that vilify one of the parties. These trials by media are usually riddled with factual inaccuracies, half-truths and unilateral perspectives, so for the public it is often difficult to discern a meaningful truth. A trial of this kind is exemplified by the case of the former President of the Republic of Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed.

On 17 January 2016, Amal Clooney, the most prominent member of the international legal team representing Nasheed, gave a series of interviews for U.S. television. In the interviews she repeatedly spoke about the situation of the country and presented her vision about her client’s case.

As legal representative of the accused party in a legal conflict, she is expected to defend her client’s interests and position, and thus take a selective approach into the general narrative and legal discussion. Nevertheless, the public must neither confuse a party’s narrative with the truth, nor confound impunity with justice.

About the situation in Maldives

It is ordinarily defended by the former President’s international team that Maldives is a country where “there is a human rights crisis and where democracy is under threat”; that the State is governed by “an increasing authoritarian regime”; and that Nasheed was removed by a “coup d’état”. These simple statements are well received by the international media and are useful to mobilize public opinion; however, they also constitute a one-sided and exaggerate representation of the reality.

For example, from these statements, an uninformed viewer or reader could never imagine that the National Commission of Inquiry, in a process observed by the UN and Commonwealth, carried an independent inquiry on Nasheed’s resignation and concluded both that he had resigned voluntarily, and that the transfer of power was lawful and constitutional. As a matter of fact, the Commission of National Inquiry viewed Nasheed’s evidence before it with a great deal of scepticism and it is believed that foreign powers attempted to influence the outcome of this independent process. This neutral spectator could have never thought that in such ‘authoritarian’ country, the current President of Maldives, Abdulla Yameen, was democratically elected in the ballot boxes in free and fair elections; and that Maldives is a place where demonstrations take place with regularity. Nasheed was not removed from office or forced to ‘resign at gunpoint’ as he has often claimed. He was forced to resign due to the manner which he held office and the decisions he took as President. He must take responsibility for his own actions that are certainly not consonant with the rule of law.

The former President’s case: relevant omissions

The former President is often portrayed as a political prisoner. He is not. His legal team complains that the majority of judges who convicted him “didn’t have law degrees”, and that Nasheed did not have access to lawyers for “most of the time”. They defend that he was subjected to a “political show trial”, and that the Government refused to comply with international decisions calling for his release.

However, these allegations are either unfounded or factually incorrect. First, it is unclear how the alleged lack of educational preparation of judges affected Nasheed’s trial, while it is unquestionable that he was provided with the best possible judicial services in the country, which is the relevant standard in terms of equality and justice. The arguments raised about the education of the judges demonstrates his disrespect for the institution by raising questions that have no basis in fact.

Second, Nasheed had access to his lawyers during most of the judicial process, and it was only on the last days of trial when they, unilaterally, or upon the advice of the former President, decided to withdraw from their functions. This matter, and other alleged procedural irregularities will be thoroughly studied by the Supreme Court, in the appeal that has been filed by the Prosecutor General. It is important to note that Nasheed has also now filed an appeal, despite having frustrated the appeal process in the High Court and repeatedly claiming he had no right of appeal. The fact that he has chosen to now pursue an appeal before the highest appellate court also contradicts his international advisor’s argument that they have no faith in the courts.

In contrast to what it has been defended by Nasheed’s legal team, the Supreme Court will give consideration to the decision issued by the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD), which is in strict compliance with the decision. Nevertheless, the statements put forward by Mrs. Clooney and her team supporting the former President’s position, often fail to indicate that the WGAD’s decision is not legally binding, and consequently, Maldives is not internationally obliged to implement it. They further seek from the Government to intervene in a legal process, circumvent the rule of law and release a convicted prisoner for an offence that he has openly admitted to having committed on at least two previous occasions (see BBC Hardtalk interview and New York Times editorial).

Nonetheless, the former President supporters’ most common omission is about the reasons behind his conviction. For example, not a single minute or dialogue in Mrs. Clooney’s interview was devoted to explain and analyze why the former President has been convicted in Maldives. Media reports and op-eds on the development of Nasheed’s case, particularly, those who are authored by his legal team, often fail to mention that he was convicted for ordering the army to arrest and detain the Chief Judge of the Criminal Court Abdullah Mohamed without any lawful order, holding him incommunicado for 72 hours, and maintaining his detention for a further 21 days in a military establishment. Is this the act of a man applying the rule of law?

This oppressive and unprecedented order, which he openly admitted to have issued in a BBC Hardtalk interview following his resignation, woke national and international outcry, as it constituted an unlawful and arbitrary interference of the executive on the judiciary and a clear violation of the judge’s most basic human rights. It is important to note that during this interview Nasheed stated that as the President it was his obligation to remove the judge and he would do it again. In this vein, the former President cannot be considered a ‘political prisoner’, as often portrayed by his supporters, but a prisoner who used to be a politician and abused of his position.

It is regrettable that in the numerous interviews that Mrs Clooney and her team have given there is reference to the ‘removal’ of a ‘corrupt judge’. It is important to note that the characterisation of ‘removal’ is quite inappropriate. The judge in question was not removed from office. He was unlawfully arrested by the army, on the President’s order, arbitrarily detained for a prolonged period of time at undisclosed, military location. He was not brought before a court of law. That is not demonstrable of a legal process, that is an arbitrary abuse of power. It is quite clear that it constitutes a criminal offence in any jurisdiction.

The current situation of the former President

Despite the seriousness of the criminal allegations, there is an international campaign for the liberation of the former President, and the Government of Maldives has received numerous calls to interfere in the appellate judicial process. The government has refused to interfere in what is, at the moment, a strictly judicial matter, and opted for respecting the Rule of Law.

Former President Nasheed has now travelled to London, via Sri Lanka, for medical treatment. The Government of Maldives has granted him permission to enable surgery to take place, a decision that would be perceived as inappropriate of a government characterized as ‘oppressive’. Mr. Nasheed would be abroad, initially, for a period of 30 days, which could be extendable under medical recommendations.

The former President’s status as a serving prisoner has not changed with this decision, so he is expected, and legally obliged, to return to Maldives to serve the remainder of his sentence once his health condition improves, as he has agreed in a guarantee document. Following the legal tradition in the Maldives, the former President’s brother has also signed a ‘guardianship’ document, aimed at ensuring that the former President returns to the Maldives and does not avoid the completion of his sentence.

It is of the utmost concern that already the former President has violated the terms of his release. He was given permission to travel to the United Kingdom to undergo medical treatment. However, he spent several days in Sri Lanka taking part in a number of political briefings with members of his political party. He subsequently travelled to the United Kingdom and has held meetings with the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, and is hosting a press conference with his legal team on 25 January 2016. These are not the acts of a person in need of urgent treatment. Furthermore, in which jurisdiction would a convicted prisoner be permitted to hold political and media briefings whilst on exceptional medical leave. Would a British prisoner be so permitted? Then why is it acceptable for Nasheed, and for that matter the British Prime Minister, to treat the Maldives Government and its legal system with such contempt.

Contradicting narrative

The international ‘popular’ trial of former President Mohamed Nasheed has fallen into a spiral of oversimplifications and selective narratives that leads to contradictions. In this sense, the former President’s legal team has often stressed that one of the main reasons to justify international sanctions in this case is the risk of terrorist extremism and radicalism in the country, without providing any argument that could explain how liberating Mr. Nasheed would be beneficial for the reduction of radicalism in Maldives. These kind of statements invite the belief that the real motivation behind the sanctions is not the liberation of the former President, but a governmental change, which would turn the sanctions illegal and contrary to the principle of sovereignty.

Additionally, former President’s supporters alleged that “protestors are being rounded up” to justify the “authoritarian” character of the government of Maldives. In contrast, at the same occasion, Mr. Nasheed’s legal team complained about the fact that in a rally where citizens where waving ISIS flags “the police did not crackdown on those and no arrest took place”. The aim of this comment was to present an image of the Government of Maldives as a supporter of terrorism, and thus justify the international sanctions. Nevertheless, what derives from this contradiction is a partisan and selective approach to the concept of freedom of expression, which suggests a double standard of executive intervention in protests depending on the specific ideas defended by protestors, rather than on the degree of violence of the protest, which is understood to be the international standard.

Finally, supporters of the former President argue that international action in this case “will be for the benefit of all Maldivians”, whist they systematically call for both sanctions and a tourism boycott.

Maldives is a country whose economy is heavily reliant on tourism, so it is unclear how a decline in tourism activity and revenues, and therefore, on employment and consumption, would be beneficial for Maldivian citizens. Fighting for the impunity of a single politician could never justify the imposition of a severe and general punishment to an entire population.

Dr Abdulla Khaleel is an MP with the ruling Progressive Party of the Maldives.

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